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Sweet LibertyThe Dream of Freedom
"Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed -- else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower
As I talked to the folks whom you'll meet in the pages that follow, the abstract concept of freedom began to take solid shape. It was a form recognizable to any American, distilled from that first and best articulation of the original American dream: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Freedom, it occurred to me, is equality in action.
As such, it is America's greatest promise, and it may also be her greatest demand upon We the People. Without it, there's no America, and certainly no American dream. As the eminent midcentury American historian Henry Steele Commager once wrote, "Freedomis not a luxury that we can indulge when at last we have security and prosperity and enlightenment; it is, rather, antecedent to all of these, for without it we can have neither security nor prosperity nor enlightenment." All the material particulars, the proverbial house with the white picket fence and all that goes with it, are only possible because our founders dreamed of freedom.
It was a dream spurred by a deep and abiding sense among them that all were equal in the eyes of God. A dream of freedom from an unequal relationship with Mother England, yes, but also of freedom in a more universal sense. The most forward-thinking members of the founding generation saw America as a place where the Old World order could be remade -- where all men would be liberated from government oppression, from the bondage of debt, from the hierarchies of church, state, and society that had defined life in Europe.
The founders believed greatly in equality and freedom, but their faith was fraught with error. Their decision to leave slavery intact in the new order mocked their beliefs. And "all men are created equal" was, we know too well, more than a mere turn of phrase when women were denied the vote. Here the courage of men like Jefferson and Madison came up hard against its limits. But we look back through better eyes at an era accustomed to the greatest sins against liberty. One could say that the framers dreamed of freedom, but only dreamed in black and white.
We celebrate an America born on July 4, 1776. But if we take the Declaration of Independence at its word, it is a birth with which we labor still. Because the very reasoning Jefferson used to make the case against English rule over thecolonists could have been turned against the new nation itself. The American government did not rule with the consent of all it governed, and rhetoric did not begin to meet deed until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had many reasons for doing this, not least of which was his belief that it would aid the Union war effort, but in this no matter the motives -- our nation was born again...and again when women won the vote, and again in the eradication of Jim Crow. It is reborn with each confident assertion of that which is ours because it cannot be taken away.
Marrying the founders' rhetoric with reality has never been an easy consummation. There have been times throughout our history, especially during wars hot and cold, when promise and practice moved farther apart. What I think needs to be considered, though, is that freedom is always incomplete when we look at it as nothing more than a guarantee on a piece of time-yellowed paper. It does not exist in a vacuum. Freedom is like a muscle that atrophies if it is not used; once we understand this, it becomes clear that we have a responsibility not only to consider ourselves free but to act like a free people.
This very sentiment undergirds our Constitution, a document as revolutionary in its day as the independent nation that produced it. From its opening, "We the People," it affirms the idea that our government is of us, by us, and for us. The liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights are not handed down from above but reserved by We the People as the conditions by which we will allow ourselves to be governed.The Fifth Amendment, as we all know from countless crime dramas, deals with the rights of adefendant. The Second Amendment fuels endless debate over what it says about our right to bear arms. The Fourth addresses the quartering of troops in private homes. These are specific assurances aimed at specific situations. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments, though crucial, do not stir the blood. But the First Amendment is general and fundamental. It stakes its appeal in universal law. It says: you are free to follow the dictates of your conscience -- in worshiping the god of your choice or choosing not to worship at all, in speaking your mind, in associating with...
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